Criminal JusticeHealthcareIssuesLocal NewsAthens Voters to Decide ‘Sanctuary City for the Unborn’ Proposition

Athens was the setting for thousands of illegal abortions before the U.S. Supreme Court established abortion rights in Roe v. Wade.
August 3, 2022
The City of Athens is one step closer to becoming a “sanctuary city for the unborn” after council members advanced an ordinance creating a private cause of action for any abortion procedure performed within city limits or on city residents. The ordinance is designed to protect unborn life from the point of conception.

City Secretary ​​Bonnie Hambrick confirmed to The Texan that the Athens City Council opted to place the proposal on the November general election ballot.

The city charter of Athens gave the council two options — adopt the ordinance itself or put the question to voters in November. Council members chose the latter.

Mark Lee Dickson, director of Right to Life of East Texas and founder of the Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn Initiative, commented on the city council’s decision in a statement to The Texan.

“Almost everyone at the meeting Monday night wanted to see the Athens City Council choose Option A and pass the ordinance which would make it illegal for abortions to be performed on Athens residents — regardless of where the abortion took place,” Dickson wrote in an email. “The fact that the citizens are going to have to get this job done in November themselves may be evidence that the Mayor and City Council has ceased to become a voice of the people.”

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The proposed ordinance, opposed by Mayor Toni Clay, references thousands of illegal abortions performed by Curtis Boyd in the years preceding the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, which created a legal right to abortion. Clay contends it is improper for the city to set up a scheme whereby residents sue one another to enforce the law.

“Abortion at all times and at all stages of pregnancy is declared to be an act of murder unless the mother’s life is in danger,” the document reads.

The ordinance would also prohibit abortion-inducing medications and health insurance that covers abortion in Athens.

Dickson reflected on Athens’ history and emphasized the significance of the proposed ordinance.

“In the late 1960’s Curtis Wayne Boyd, the Henderson County Health Officer, committed 10,000 illegal abortions in Athens, Texas. The leadership of Athens, during that time, ignored the crimes one of their own community leaders was guilty of committing,” Dickson wrote. “Many residents in Athens, who are appalled at this history, were extremely disappointed that their own council would not put into place these protections which would prevent an individual like Boyd from getting away with murder once again in Athens, Texas.”

A Texas law authored by Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) and Rep. Shelby Slawson (R-Stephenville) allows citizens to sue anyone who helps someone procure an abortion, though it does not allow suits against a woman on whom an abortion is performed. The law is known as the Heartbeat Act, and only applies to unborn children with detectable cardiac activity.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that there is no constitutional right to abortion and that the question of abortion rights should be decided by state legislatures.

The Texas Legislature enacted another law called the Human Life Protection Act of 2021 to go into effect in the event that Roe was overturned. The act will take effect in the coming weeks, and makes performing an abortion a first-degree felony with strict exceptions, such as to save the life of a mother or prevent irreparable bodily harm.

While a pro-life victory in deeply conservative East Texas might seem like a foregone conclusion, supporters of abortion rights in traditionally conservative Kansas claimed victory in Tuesday’s referendum on abortion access.

The Kansas Supreme Court decided in 2019 that the state’s constitution protects a woman’s right to choose an abortion. The question before voters was whether to amend the constitution to give the state’s Legislature the ability to enact pro-life laws.

Kansas voters rejected the proposal by a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent.

On the subject of getting the proposal across the finish line, Dickson pointed to the dozens of other municipalities across Texas and the nation that have declared themselves to be sanctuary cities for the unborn.

“In Lubbock, the churches were mobilized to collect the signatures, to educate voters, and to show up to the polls. Athens will be no different,” he wrote.

In 2021, Lubbock residents voted overwhelmingly to become a sanctuary city for the unborn.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the Kansas Legislature is unicameral. Nebraska is the only state with a unicameral Legislature. We regret the error.

Update: This article has been updated with comments and additional context from Mark Lee Dickson.


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Hayden Sparks

Hayden Sparks is a senior reporter for The Texan and a lifelong resident of the Lone Star State. He has coached competitive speech and debate and has been involved in politics since a young age. One of Hayden's favorite quotes is by Sam Houston: "Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression, come from what source it may."